The first big miracle in the life of the early church happened, it seems, almost by accident. The lame man at the Beautiful Gate, begging for alms, called out to Peter and John as he had called out so many times before, probably without even looking up. You can read all about it, as they say, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 3!
The two apostles themselves, perhaps with their companions, were not on the prowl for pastoral or evangelistic opportunities. They were simply going up to the temple at the hour of prayer – going to pray. Their ministry to this man sprang out of – was fed by – the soil of prayer and worship.
It was the continuation of one of the key narrative strands in Acts, a primary response to the resurrection. Already in chapter 2 of Acts, we’ve been told that they were devoted to prayer and teaching, fellowship and the breaking of bread. Four verses later we hear that they spent much time in the temple.
But on the way, they were interrupted by the man’s need. And then they jump into action, stepping quite naturally into the continuation of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ teaching, healing, forgiving, the exercise of power and authority, through the Holy Spirit, have fallen upon the church, and Peter and John are that church. At that moment, in that place, Christ becomes present for the lame man, in Peter’s words and actions, in his very life.
We might say that as Jesus was, so the body of Christ became. Peter didn’t have to think what to do; he just had to do what he did in the name of Jesus. And surprise, surprise, it worked!
The amazed crowd gathered like flies to the honey pot, but Peter has learnt his lesson well at the feet of Jesus. He immediately turned the attention of the crowd away from the leaping, praising walking man, to the Kingdom of God.
Our business, he says, is not about signs, but about that which signs signify. From why do you wonder? he turns pretty immediately to the good news: the God of Abraham has glorified his servant, or son Jesus. The healing is a small but significant act, pointing to the need for a total reorientation in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The sermon itself has the typical structure of
a. A summary of the Old Testament narrative;
b. fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
c. This is followed by judgement on the faithlessness of the past;
d. and a call to the faithless ones to become faithful. They are to repent, to turn to Jesus, follow Jesus, be baptized in the name of Jesus.
e. And as the new faithful, they are called to a community of power: in the name of Jesus: And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
Towards the end of the sermon, Peter gives a strange promise: there will be times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, followed by the sending of the Messiah at the time of universal restoration.
We sort of understand the end times. But times of refreshing? These are the moments, the markers, the signs, which remind us that the people of the Way, Peter, John, we, have stepped out of the world into the Kingdom of God as it unfolds and moves towards completion on the last day.
These times of refreshing are what George Herbert calls ‘heaven in ordinary’, when we are suddenly and strangely made aware of the fact that we inhabit a new world, a Kingdom that cannot be overthrown, in the midst of what is still a very mixed, confusing and often painful life.
All very promising, until we realize that we can’t make these moments happen. However, if we wheel back to the beginning of Acts 3, and two disciples on the way to the Temple to pray , we remember that these times of refreshing come from the presence of the Lord.
And so there are 4 little principles that we can practise that relate to the presence of the Lord. In order to prepare space for these times of refreshing in our lives, we must
a. wait – make ourselves available in the temple so that God may draw near to us.
b. watch – look for the signs of God’s presence, encouragement and refreshing that are already around us, but which get ignored in the haste of life.
c. ask – reminded by Jesus that we never got anything by not asking, we approach a generous God in faith. And finally
d. seek – with risky praying that we too, in the midst of a messy and turbulent life, may see miracles, signs of God’s presence as the Kingdom breaks in to a humdrum and despairing world.